One thing the caucus-goers in Iowa last week and the voters Tuesday in New Hampshire have in common is that none of them had to present a photo-identity card to election workers in order to vote.
Sure, each of the record-breaking voters in both states had to offer some proof that they were properly participating — but pulling out a valid state-issued ID was not part of the process. That would not have been the case had these early election days been contested in Indiana.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments challenging the Hoosier State’s controversial 2005 voter ID law. It’s the highest-profile Republican v. Democrat case to reach the high court since the infamous 2000 Bush v. Gore lawsuit that effectively decided that year’s presidential race.
This case doesn’t have as much at stake, but has still managed to inflame the passions of political partisans even during this primary season.
The law was passed on a party-line vote by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Governor Mitch Daniels — also a Republican.
Those in favor of it argue that the law is necessary to help prevent election fraud at the polls. They also note that the Indiana law is one part of a nationwide trend since the controversial Florida ballot counting in 2000 to maintain and improve the integrity of the election process. And they say that the law effectively combats bloated voter registration lists that could be ripe for abuse.
"The Indiana Voter ID Law establishes reasonable, long-overdue election-security reform in a State highly vulnerable to in-person election fraud," the state’s solicitor general wrote to the high court.
Conversely, opponents of the law say it has the potential to unfairly and illegally disfranchise 43,000 Indiana residents who do not or can not obtain a valid government-issued identification card. They say that those who will be negatively impacted are mainly senior citizens, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, minorities and people who live in the state’s handful of urban areas.
Critics also question the necessity of the law, which they call the most draconian in the country, pointing out that at no point in Indiana’s history has anyone been charged with fraud at an election poll.
"[T]he Legislature took no steps to curtail the problem which it actually had some evidence —absentee voting-related fraud," wrote attorneys for the petitioners in this case. The state contends such a history isn’t necessary to justify the law.
Those opposed further contend that it will be too much of a burden for some of these Indiana residents to get a valid ID for the purpose of voting. They argue that the time and expense of getting a state ID is a "daunting process" and cite generalized examples of people who had problems working with the State’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
But the state questions the legal standing of the petitioners and wonders "how onerous can the law be if a major political party, two seasoned candidates and four substantial political-interest groups cannot find even one person injured by it?"
Underlying the arguments in this case is the racial context that has raised the sensitivities of those mindful of past "reform" laws that were improperly used to prevent minorities groups from exercising their electoral rights.
The petitioners write that "the history of voting in the United States is replete with examples of sinister efforts to disfranchise voters which were accepted by courts that refused to look behind the assertion of an innocent purpose."
Joining this refrain in amicus briefs are the NAACP and a group of historians who liken the law to the notorious poll taxes.
In response, Indiana rejects any claims of malicious motives behind the legislation.
"The voter ID law represents a reasonable, non-discriminatory exercise of elections clause authority that, just as the founders envisioned, takes account of ‘change in the situation of the country’ and advances the agenda of election modernization," the state wrote.
To that final point, Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Robert Bennett of Utah and Kit Bond of Missouri wrote a brief to the court in support of Indiana’s law, arguing that it comports with the federal "Help America Vote Act" passed in 2002. Twenty-six Republican members of the House of Representatives also added their names to the brief.
The trial court consolidated the legal challenges and ruled that the petitioners, including the Indiana Democratic Party, had standing to bring the case.
But that court also determined that the law was reasonable, finding that it did not create a severe burden on the right to vote. A divided Seventh Circuit affirmed the ruling, concluding in part that because the number of people disfranchised by the law was small, the state’s action was justified.